This review was previously posted on March 6, 2011 on my old blog. I never did much with it and hated the URL, so I started this one, but even though this isn’t the best thing I’ve ever written, and aside from a few (corrected) repetitions, it’s not a terrible review.
When I sat down to write this (my first) blog post, I had planned to write a review of the novel Peace, by Gene Wolfe. After thinking about the novel for a while though, I realized that this is going to be more of a response and a discussion of the book than an actual review.
The reason for this isn’t that I’m lazy or especially dumb, but just the way the book is laid out. In some respects, it is a simple story. It is the memoirs of a man, Alden Dennis Weer, who is writing about his life in the small Midwestern town he has lived in his whole life. He tells about his wealthy parents who fled to Europe after a scandal at Den’s fifth birthday party; his eccentric aunt he lived with during that time and her four suitors; his uncle and the orange juice processing plant he started which Den later inherits. Seems simple enough. But with Wolfe, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Den is not the most straightforward storyteller, and his senility or his stroke or his metaphysical displacement causes him to jump around from story to story, sometimes jumping to three different time periods all on the same page. In this way, it is similar to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The smell of sulfur causes Den to think back to something in his childhood, and a fairytale he read as a boy reminds him of a conversation he had in his office in the 50’s, and so on.
Within all of that, Den hides things from us. He is purposefully vague and doesn’t like to conclude his stories when you expect him to. For example, at a party thrown by one of his Aunt Olivia’s suitors, two people tell a story (with many interruptions by the party-goers and by Den himself), and three quarters of the way through the second story, Den gets sidetracked and moves on. Nearly 100 pages later, a side-character off-handedly tells us the end of the story and the reader is expected to put the pieces together. In another example, the story of the young boy who fell down the stairs is never adequately explained. “How did Bobby Black fall down the stairs?” is a question that should be on everyone’s mind as they read through the book. The answer, never explicitly stated, adds a whole new layer of creepiness to the story.
The book is labeled a fantasy on the cover of the edition I have, and while there are certainly stories of fairies, banshees, genies, and mad scientists, they are only ever told as tales by other characters. It is quite possible to interpret this book as nothing more than the odd, rambling reminiscences of a senile and lonely old man. I don’t hold to that interpretation, but I think you could make a decent case for it.
I have to confess, Gene Wolfe is my favorite author. This is the eighth novel I’ve read by him, I’ve read probably two dozen short stories of his, and I have one more Wolfe novel waiting on my desk in my dorm room when I get back from Spring Break. I love Wolfe. But this book is good for anyone. Whether you enjoy science fiction or fantasy, or if you just like a challenging novel, I highly recommend this. It’s complex and difficult to get into for the first 30 pages or so, but it’s very rewarding in the end (though it lacks a bit of “payoff”). Sadly, it’s out of print now, but buy it if you can. It’s completely worth the read. Besides, I want to know what you think.